In The Thicket managing director, Stephan Renard, says too many brands get the idea of “sexy” and “sexism” mixed-up in their brand message. And, in this opinion piece, he argues it will be to a brand’s detriment for those who continue to deliver the wrong message.
The last few weeks as I’ve ridden my motorbike to work in Sydney I’ve regularly got stuck behind a bus sporting the latest campaign for the Bavarian Bier Cafe. And each time I’m transfixed, but not on what the ad wants me to be. Quite the opposite, actually – I’m perplexed by the proclamation that this is the modern woman, like: ‘We’ve taken this Bavarian woman, and modernised her. You can tell because she now wears a push-up bra and you can see her bellybutton.” Is this the modern woman we want to advertise to the modern man?
Why do brands still over-sexualise woman, and why do we still accept it, when gender equity is on the agenda of most businesses and governments around the world; it’s part of their values and commitment.
More than 971 business leaders around the world have demonstrated leadership on gender equality through the Women’s Empowerment Principles. The Westpac website states gender equity “is not about ideology, numbers or political correctness – this is a serious economic and business opportunity”.
Looking inward, it’s working. Among Fortune 500 companies, firms with the highest representation of women board directors outperformed those with the least.
Looking outward, it makes sense. Women are the largest emerging market in the world. Over the next decade, they will wield enormous influence over politics, sport, business and society. By the year 2028, women will control close to 75 per cent of discretionary spending worldwide. Women own about a third of all businesses in the world, and nearly half of those businesses are in developing markets.
So with women the largest growing market, if it’s important for business, shouldn’t it be for brands? Brands are owned by businesses. And yet some businesses persist with a skewed representation of the modern woman.
I appreciate the Bavarian Bier Café ad targets men, but how about the recent UK campaign by Protein World, a dietary supplement who targeted British women in the lead up to Summer by asking “Are you Beach Body Ready?” with an image of a skinny, bikini-clad model. Many women were offended.
London citizens quickly graffiti-ed them with body-positive messages while an online petition to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said the company was “directly targeting individuals, aiming to make them feel physically inferior to the unrealistic body image of the bronzed model, in order to sell their product.”
The ad was eventually banned in the UK by the ASA, despite its intended short run which cost of £250,000. It felt like a pretty big misstep by the company. However, Protein World claims the backlash added to the direct sales of revenue by around £1m, according to Business Insider.
But that’s not the end. In New York’s Time Square the company erected the same billboard banking on a similar result, with a rollout across public transport to come. Richard Stavely, the company’s marketing chief told Adweek: “It’s a big middle finger to everybody who bothered to sign that stupid petition in the UK. You could say that the London protesters helped pay for the New York campaign.”
Such blatant insulting first, and then trolling of its intended market seems at odds with marketing in general. And yet it worked because on a base level it was saying ‘you need this.’ We might hope that a female CMO wouldn’t let that campaign through… but the numbers seem to stack up.
According to behavioural scientist Adam Ferrier, in developing markets such as China, India and Indonesia “brands still play an aspirational role”.
These three nations are the first, second and fourth most populated countries in the world, yet according to the World Economic Forum, China is rated 87th, Indonesia is 97th and India is 114th on the recently released 2014 Gender Gap Report that measures gender-based disparity.
Unfortunately, The World Economic Forum suggests we’ll have to wait 80 years for gender parity in the workplace worldwide. Does that mean 80 more years of aspirational advertising?
I’m not suggesting the Protein World model is perfect, or for that matter anyone less toned to be imperfect, but hopefully we continue to reflect reality, the unbiased and imperfect in our advertising, with equality in our representation of the genders, rather than with the aspirational, sexist and tired approach.